I have numerous references to John Worland (Comish) in my leapers article that was published in Bandwagon Jul-Aug 1990. Here is a part which I have transcribed to another manuscript:
John Comish was born in 1855, the same year as Frank Gardner. He began working with the circus at age 10, and took the professional name of Worland, after Madam Worland, the equestrienne.[i] John was probably apprenticed to Jerry Worland, a “Champion Leaper and tumbler” with the Cooper and Myers Circus which played in Peoria, Illinois in 1858; with David Crosbie’s French and American Circus, which played in Bloomington, Illinois in 1859, and with the Antonio Bros. and James Melville Australian Circus Combined, which also played in Bloomington in 1861. Comish was called “Little Johnny Worland” performing with the James T. Johnson Circus in 1869, and by 1872 he had apparently left the Worland family, and he was listed as a tumbler and leaper with the San Francisco Circus and Roman Hippodrome. In 1874 he is found working with John Wilson’s Palace Amphitheatre in San Francisco, where he performed in an early casting act called “Dorr, Worland and son.” Worland travelled to South America in 1877 with the Carlo Bros. Circus. In 1878 while still with the Calro Bros. show it was reported that “John Worland, the principal leaper, had met with an accident, which it is thought, will end his career in the circus business,” which, of course, was a premature prognosis.
He joined the Adam Forepaugh show in 1880 in Chicago as a “star leaper” also doing a horizontal bar act with two other people. In 1881 he was featured as a “trick leaper and outside wire ascentionist.” At this time he patented his design for a superior leaping board, making this device available to the entire profession without charge. He left the Forepaugh show in 1883 and began a long and lucrative association with the Orrin Bros. Circus which traveled extensively in Central and South America.[ii]
Worland first accomplished a triple somersault from the spring board in St. Louis, Missouri in 1874. He repeated the trick with Howe’s London Circus at St. Louis, Michigan in 1876, though he landed on the leaping bed in a seated position instead of on his feet. In 1881 Worland completed the trick twice while with the Adam Forepaugh show, first at Eau Claire, Wisconsin; and again at La Crosse. In 1882 he advertised “WILL CONTRACT FOR BOTH AFTERNOON AND EVENING PERFORMANCES TO ACCOMPLISH A TRIPLE SOMERSAULT OVER A PYRAMID OF ELEPHANTS, HORSES, OR OTHER OBJECTS.” Of this offer, J. L. Hutchinson said, “”John Worland offered to do (the triple somersault) twice a day for us through the season, but he wanted to land in a net, and we declined his offer, because done in that way, it would have no particular effect.” Throwing a somersault into a net should not be considered a simple or safe means of executing a triple somersault, however. The article “HIS LIFE, The Penalty For Failure,” (Cincinnati Enquirer, Dec. 21, 1894, p. 9) stated that David R. Hawley, “of the great aerial team of Hawley and Buislay, attempted a triple somersault into a net in Canada, and broke his neck.” Hawley was 35 years old, a native of Albany, New York, and broke his neck falling into a net which was stretched too tight to allow any flexibility in falling from the trapeze onto the back of his neck. He died of his injuries soon after.[iii]
Worland was not to accomplish the triple somersault again until 1884 at New Haven, Connecticut while again with the Adam Forepaugh Circus. While Worland was not the only performer to have accomplished a triple somersault (one of the earliest confirmed examples is that of Jonathan Hoyt in 1869 as reported by George Speaight in his book, A History of the Circus), Worland was certainly the only man who ever accomplished the feat often enough to claim consistency and live to tell about it. Even as late as May of 1933, when acrobat, Gene DeKoe attempted to revive leaping in the circus arena, the leaps proved fatal. Though different sources reported that DeKoe had been attempting a triple somersault, circus fan, Sverre Braathen confided to Luisita Leers in June of 1934 that DeKoe “fell on his head on the tick while doing a double over a couple of elephants and broke his back with the result that he died two days later.” The Christiani troupe again tried to revive the leaps in 1939, leaping over elepahts, horses and camels, but could not generate enough public interest to make the act profitable.[iv]
[i] “The Final Curtain,” Billboard, Jul. 15, 1933, p. 52; Millette, op. cit.; Couderc, op. cit; “The Human Tumbler,” Omaha Daily Bee, Apr. 11, 1883, p. 3.
[ii] Daily Democratic Union, Peoria, Illinois, May 4, 1858; Indiana State Sentinel, Indianapolis, Indiana, May 15, 1861, p. 3; Daily Pantagraph, Bloomington, Illinois, Aug. 22, 1859, p. 2 and Sep. 13, 1861, p. 3; New York Clipper, Jun. 3, 1869, p. 103; Jun. 1, 1872, p. 71; Apr. 11, 1874, p. 15; Aug. 22, 1874, p. 167; Jan. 20, 1877, p. 343; Mar. 23, 1878, p. 415; Feb. 14, 1880, p. 371; Apr. 3, 1880, p. 11; Aug. 28, 1880, p. 179; Mar. 19, 1881, p. 411; Apr. 16, 1881, p. 54; Jul 30, 1881, p. 305; Nov. 12, 1881, p. 561; Aug. 26, 1882, p. 366 & 375; Sep. 30, 1882, p. 460; Mar. 10, 1883, p. 822; Aug. 26, 1882, p. 375; Oct. 18, 1884, p. 496; Shenandoah Herald, Woodstock, Virginia, Apr. 25, 1883, p. 1; Couderc, op. cit.
[iii] “HIS LIFE, The Penalty For Failure,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati, Ohio, Dec. 21, 1894, p. 9; “Probably a Leap for Death,” The Buffalo Commercial, Buffalo, New York, Jun. 11, 1886, p. 2 (from the Albany Journal); The Wilkes-Barre News, Wilkes Barre, Pennsuylvania, Jul. 20, 1886, p. 2 (from the Albany, New York Daily Press and Knickerbocker).
[iv] Worland, op. cit; personal correspondence between Sverre Braathen and Luisita Leers, Jun. 12, 1934, courtesy of Illinois State University Milner Library Special Collections; “Dangerous Stunts to be Revived by Big Circus,” The Portsmouth Herald, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Mar. 24, 1939, p. 6.
The Hertzberg circus collection, once part of the San Antonio Public Library but transferred to the Witte Museum in San Antonio about 10-12 years ago, had a number of letters by Worland written late in his life to a circus enthusiast that details many aspects of his career. They are neatly typed and very literate. Sadly, the Witte has been unresponsive to inquiries about the Hertzberg collection in recent years and has had difficult locating items in the collection.
The three major public circus libraries ( Circus World Museum, the Ringling, Milner Library at Illinois State University ) all have archives of circus business records that would include information on managers and agents. You might consult them to see if they have information on Mr. Hodgson.
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